YAEJI • DJ/PRODUCER
I’m really interested in learning more about noise bands and punk. I want to go to these shows live. From what I gather, the energy is actually quite similar to techno raves. I love that connection between totally different sounding scenes. They are connected.
June 17, 2017
interview by Madeleine Campbell
illustration by Maggie Negrete
Y: I kind of see being a woman producer in the same way I view Pittsburgh. It’s a small city and there aren’t a ton of people but I think one of the pros you get out of it is that there are all these great people doing very different realms of music that show you there are so many different avenues you can take. And since they’re kind of their own thing because there aren’t as many people here, they dig deep and are experts in it. I think that’s cool. New York is such a different beast. It’s hard to even compare. A lot of things become very numbing there because it’s oversaturated all the time. It definitely made me realize a lot about my gender and race. It’s the most accentuated it’s ever been. It’s such a topic of discussion which is great. This kind of conversation happens a lot which made me learn a lot about it.
WinS: Could you say more about that?
It’s definitely coming from within me. I’ve become aware of how big of an issue this is. It’s so weird, Madeleine. This is kind of backwards but I’ll give you a little bit of my history.
I was born in Queens. I lived in New York for about five or six years of my life and don’t remember any of it. My parents were really struggling as Asian immigrants so we moved to Atlanta of all places. This was the mid-90s. I was the only Asian girl in my class. I was always on the receiving end of terrible racist jokes. I think in the midst of all of it, I definitely did not let myself process it. I suppressed it so much that I didn’t think race was a problem at all. Being a girl probably added onto it. I don’t even know. That was a lot of my American life. We moved back to Korea when I was ten. My parents were concerned I would forget about all my Korean heritage and there I was faced with significant gender inequality. It’s huge there. Now I was surrounded by the same race of people but they were largely sexist. When I went to college, I was pretty much in a bubble. I was learning about all of these issues and reading the news and what not but I was still definitely in a bubble. My friends helped me me feel somewhat safe. Moving back to New York as an adult was the first time I opened my eyes and was thrown into a mix of all different types of people. I think it’s how I got into all of these crazy experiences. It’s been a year of growing awareness and I think is the greatest way I’ve grown so far.
Do you think this clarity has affected your work?
Yes. It’s tricky. It’s definitely affected my work and I want to say it’s positive because I think there’s less suppressive energy. I had a lot inside that I’m pulling out now - even anger. I’m angry about certain things that have happened to me because I’m a woman and I’m Asian but I struggle to be open with it. I’m bad at clearly vocalizing thoughts like “Fuck men! Fuck this!” I feel like it’s not the right way for me to approach it. I’m more inclined to express something in an abstract way through music or visual art or starting conversations with my friends or making my friends feel loved. So I can’t put my finger on a specific way it’s changed my work but I think it has. Like you mentioned about yourself earlier, this whole DJ and electronic music scene is relatively new for me actually.
Yeah! I started in Pittsburgh. At the end of my sophomore year of college, I joined the [Carnegle Mellon University] radio station [WRCT 88.3] and met all these people into crazy music. I didn’t really grow up with music. A lot of it was being filtered. It hit me all at once. I was completely immersed. I skipped class and kept producing and DJing. All of this is so fresh to me - every show, every conversation. I learn so much. And opposite of you, I’m really interested in learning more about noise bands and punk. I want to go to these shows live. From what I gather, the energy is actually quite similar to techno raves. I love that connection between totally different sounding scenes. They are connected.
So what do you consider your work within the umbrella of electronic music?
This is a tough question. I feel like my production is so different than my DJ sets. As Yaeji, an artist, it’s hard to pick one. I’ve heard I’m kinda R&B influenced house or down-tempo pop. I can see why and I agree with that. My DJ sets are more aggressive, definitely darker. Not as personal. More dance tools. My strongest background is hip-hop and R&B so I started DJing with that. I really like those elements that exist in house music. House is very soulful and from its origins does have ties to hip hop. It’s very human but also very dance floor appropriate. So I guess I live in that realm.
Can you elaborate on the parallels between hip-hop and house? I don’t know anything about house.
Oh this is exciting! It’s easy for me to think about when I compare house to techno in a really generalized way. When I began distinguishing genres, I thought about it like this: In your head if you have something that is more house and something that is more techno, house is usually more melodic and techno is less melodic and therefore more mechanical sounding. Techno has less live instruments samples. Some house will have acoustic drum kits sampled then put into MIDI. This is if I’m really generalizing the two genres which are vast and varied. But that element of humanness is definitely there for house that I think is very apparent in hip-hop. I really love the boom bap scene from L.A. I still listen to Stones Throw [Records] every day because that’s the best type of break I can take from the dance world. It took me by surprise that a lot of those people actually use MPCs or the same tools that a techno producer might use - a sequencer, let’s say - but every four bars there’s something wacky happening. Something different. Something human because there’s room for error. There’s room for diversion versus house and techno which are more consistent. A lot of it has a formula. First eight bars then sixteen bars. That kind of thing. I like that house has very subtle remnants of humanness in it. Maybe it’s in the vocals they use or the live acoustic drum kit they recorded. It’s soulful to me. It’s the perfect meeting point of all the things I love.
Woah, I just learned so much in that one answer.
Oh I’m so glad! I think it’s so interesting and kind of beautiful that in electronic music softwares - Ableton for example - there are all these audio effects that you can put on your tracks to make them sound more human. One of them is stutter. You can press something like “randomize” and totally change your sound. There are all these tools you can use to purposely make it sound more human. It’s like working backwards.
I wanted to go back and ask you about something you said a minute ago. What is an MPC?
It’s a sample-based production tool. There are many versions now and the newest one is quite expensive. You can load samples on an SD card and plug it in. It has a bunch of pads you can use as a sequencer or perform live. I don’t have one but I really want one. Technically I can do all of that in Ableton but I like having the physical element of the machine.
So you can use it as an instrument?
And what is your setup like?
My production is pretty simple but it’s what works for me now. I work in my bedroom and I have two really nice Yamaha monitors. Hearing is what matters most for me. I use Ableton and a MIDI keyboard that’s also analog. It’s called the Korg Minilogue. I use that mostly to lay down my synths. I have a vocal mic and an H4 Zoom field recorder. I like that because it sounds very intimate, almost ASMR-esque. Sometimes I use that for my percussion sounds, like hitting a coin on my desk and using it as a kick drum. I also have a Korg Volca Sample. It’s a tiny little machine that has a bunch of samples in it and it’s also a sequencer so it keeps looping. I don’t use it as often though. Pretty much everything else happens in Ableton. I have a turntable so I sample records sometimes, too. For my DJ setup, I use CDJs. I’ve been trying to incorporate live vocals, as well. I keep it pretty simple.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start producing but isn’t sure where to start?
Hmmm. I’d say if they have a phone that has the Voice Memo function or something similar to that, start by humming melodic or rhythmic ideas. Relisten to them and try to imagine them as loops. That helped me develop thoughts and ideas about song structure. There are lots of free of inexpensive apps, too. Start with your phone! You don’t have to be a good singer.
So do you start with your vocals? What’s your starting point?
I used to! When I started, I had no idea about Ableton and was still going through that learning curve. Vocals first made the most sense to me. Now that I’m used to it, I start by recording a four bar loop of a drum pattern or a synth pad. I loop that over and over and build from there depending on if I started with melody or beat. Vocals usually come last now.
Did you teach yourself Ableton?
Davis [Galvin] got me started which was great. He showed me some of the foundations but I took it from there and taught myself how to use it in a way that’s best for my workflow.
I use Pro Tools but I really want to learn Ableton!
You totally can. I think this ties back into what I would tell someone who wants to start producing. I love Ableton but I also don’t think people to get too focused on what DAW they start with. Don’t wait til you have Ableton to start. You don’t have to have the brand name programs and gear to bring your ideas to life.